From the early days of modern Serbia, and arguably before, Serbian perceptions and expectations of ‘the West’ were in many ways inextricable from how Serbians perceived themselves.
Serbian uprisings against the Ottomans were from the outset imagined as a way for Serbia to re-join and catch-up with its Christian brethren from the West, who were expected to embrace it with open hands.
After the last Ottoman soldiers left Serbian cities in 1867 and until World War II, it was unquestionably the West, meaning Western Europe and North America, where Serbians looked to for ideas on how to organise their state, build their cities, and live their lives.
Even when Serbia’s relationship with the West was strained, during socialism and Milosevic’s rule in 1990s, the idea of living like the West was used as a yardstick for development.
While shunning capitalism, socialist Yugoslavia from the 1960s proudly flaunted its relative Westernness compared to other socialist and communist countries. It worked hard to attract Western movie stars and musicians to dazzle the crowds, while most of its citizens relished the fact that they could hop to Trieste to buy the latest Western fashions and appliances.
Milosevic’s regime vilified the West and its values as it sank into autocracy and rabid nationalism, however, even the isolation under sanctions never weakened the dazzle of the Western lifestyle for Serbians.
Regardless of their opinion of Milosevic, throughout the 1990s Serbians desperately tried to get their hands on pirated VHS copies of American blockbusters and smuggled instant coffee, while the government-controlled media promoted Versace-clad turbo-folk starlets who still desperately aped their Western counterparts.
Even if Serbia is still seen as politically torn between Russia and the West, Serbians overwhelmingly think that the West is where the good life is.
A recent poll produced for West-leaning Belgrade think-tank the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies (CEAS) to analyse the growing influence of Russia in Serbian politics, suggested that 70 per cent of Serbs aged between 18 and 35 would choose a Western state model over a Russian one. Even more would choose Western countries for studies and work over Russia.
These poll results are supported by the fact that Western Europe and North America are where Serbs move to seek a better life. For all the Slavic and Orthodox connections, Russia is not even in the top 10 countries with the largest Serb diaspora, according to 2007 estimates by the Serbian Ministry for Diaspora, quoted in a 2008 International Organization for Migration.
Given that this high regard for the West is often at odds with Serbia’s political choices and global allegiances, it is important to analyse what the West actually means for Serbs.
First and foremost, the West in the Serbian imagination is characterised by its wealth. Given that living standards in Serbia (measured by price-adjusted GDP per capita data provided by the World Bank) are slightly more than a third of the EU average and less than a quarter of the US average, this is hardly surprising. Due to these significant differences the West is seen as a land of milk and honey, with little or no economic hardship.
Related to material well-being is the belief, especially among liberal, pro-Western Serbians, that the West is almost a perfectly arranged social system, almost completely devoid of the pitfalls that plague our own. Not only do we think that there is no corruption or cronyism, but many believe that all administrative tasks are completed with perfect efficiency and fairness.
Some let their imagination run even wilder.
Once a boy of about 10 whom I met in Belgrade complained about the lack of satisfactory romantic matches in his school. He said that he thought he would find Western girls more agreeable, and was gravely disappointed when I told him that they were not that different from the ones here.
It is not only children who see life in the west as a panacea. Serbian tabloids regularly feature tear-wrenching yet determined letters of soon-to-be emigres, writing to say how they are leaving their home country to find happiness abroad and how living in Serbia was to blame for every problem in their lives.
Even more level-headed Serbs would agree that a job in the West means that one will perennially enjoy a blissful, materially comfortable existence.
The Westerners who dare complain about their home countries are perceived as whiners and are often reminded of how much better they have it. Serbs who decide to come back here are, of course, seen either as failures or insane.
One drawback of the West that even pro-Western Serbians might allow is that there is a whole lot of working done out there. Work, they often note, might be good for the pocket but too much of it means that there is not enough time to devote to ‘the soul’, which we seem to think is nourished in equal parts by spending time with the family and by getting wasted partying until dawn.
This perception is tied to the belief that the Westerners, removed from “real life” by dutiful toiling in their almost-perfect societies, are generally unable to enjoy or even navigate Serbia and its perceived chaos. While we are growing accustomed to seeing tourists, we are still perplexed if anyone from the West moves here and immediately volunteer life advice.
Due to this belief, any positive reports about Serbia from Western journalists or celebrities are a cause of great joy and often make the front pages of our newspapers, while anything negative is explained away by the lack of understanding of our situation or appropriate sensibility.
This often trickles down to personal interactions where I have witnessed many of my Western friends subjected to usually well-meaning but overzealous interrogations of what they do and don’t like in Serbia.
The obsession with western judgement is even more understandable, given that most Serbs often see the West as an almost omnipotent determinant of life in Serbia, more powerful than any local force, and perhaps only challenged by Russia.
While those with anti-Western feelings see it as a nefarious puppet master trying to cut Serbia to its shape, pro-Western Serbs see it as a benevolent, but potentially disinterested, deity which needs to be appeased by a sufficient number of Pride parades and war crimes arrests if we want it to lift us from our misery.
It is needless to say that the real West always falls short of our outsized expectations, mostly built on pop culture and short visits, rather than real experiences and facts about this diverse collection of countries. Sometimes the US elects a dangerous buffoon to lead it, or the UK outplays its cards, or it turns out that Scandinavians can indeed party.
Even when these facts filter down to us, they barely change our perception of the wealthy, all powerful and slightly soulless West because, as these things go, the imagined West in Serbia is built on our hopes and anxieties, rather than whatever actually happens in London, New York or Berlin.
This article appeared in Belgrade Insight and is available on Balkan Insight portal